The EDP is today launching a campaign to support Norfolk child bereavement charity Nelson’s Journey on the latest stage of its own journey - into a bright new family-friendly headquarters. Stephen Pullinger reports.

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How you can donate

The different ways of helping Nelson’s Journey.

EDP readers can donate by: Texting: SMIL13 £5 to 70070

● Visit Virgin Money Giving at http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com

/team/smilesappeal

● Send a cheque made payable to ‘Nelson’s Journey’ please mark on the reverse Smiles House Appeal and send to Nelson’s Journey, Trafalgar House, 4 Meridian Way, Norwich, NR7 0TA

The idea of a child losing a mother or a father at a young age is so uncomfortable to contemplate it is almost a taboo subject: and that can be a barrier to fund-raising for Nelson’s Journey.

However, the growing need for the charity’s services is shown by the fact that its three full-time bereavement workers have provided therapeutic support for 325 children so far this year compared to 242 in the whole of 2011.

Shockingly, children are increasingly having to cope with the seismic emotional consequences of a family member taking their own life - nearly nine per cent of all cases referred to Nelson’s Journey last year.

Marketing and fund-raising officer Carol Plunkett said: “The increase in demand for our services might be partly because we are becoming better known, but it is also down to funding cuts in children’s services and the NHS bereavement service.

“The rise in the number of suicides might be due to the economic climate putting more pressure on people. Such tragic cases inevitably leave children going through a range of emotions from guilt to anger, and asking the question, ‘why?’.”

It is the increasing pressures, which are likely to see Nelson’s Journey support more than 400 children next year, that are motivating its £575,000 Smiles House Appeal.

So far only £70,000 has been raised, but the charity hopes the public will help it speedily complete its move from cramped, shared offices in Meridian Way, Norwich, to a new home on the Octagon business park in Little Plumstead.

To transform the present shell of a building, people are being asked to ‘buy a brick this Christmas’ by texting: SMIL13 £5 to 70070. They can also send cheques made payable to Nelson’s Journey to Trafalgar House, 4 Meridian Way, Norwich, NR7 OTA.

Mrs Plunkett said: “Smiles House will be a Norfolk home to support Norfolk people.

“Solicitors firm Ashton KCJ has kindly provided us with a suite of three offices while we raise funds for Smiles House, but we have not got the facilities to invite families here and the environment would not be right.

“In Smiles House we want a welcoming environment where children and young people can receive support and there is space for support groups and their families.

“Sometimes people don’t want to talk in their own home. Smiles House will give us another option and make us more accessible to the community.”

She said it would also provide accommodation for training professionals who work with children and might need bereavement guidance. “That will provide a useful revenue income and will also lessen the demand for our services,” she said.

Smiles House would also provide a suitably serene setting with outdoor space available for family fun days and other activities.

When the charity reaches its fund-raising goal it will see the completion of a remarkable journey from the spare bedroom of Kim Greensmith’s home where it all began in 1997.

Mrs Greensmith was moved to launch Nelson’s Journey by the tragic story of Katie and Hannah, the children of her husband Chris, whom she adopted in 1990.

Back in 1986, Katie and Hannah, then aged four and two, had woken up one morning to find their mother dead in bed. Their father was away and they were by themselves for several hours until he rang and realised something was wrong. Katie would not usually answer the telephone as it was high on the wall, but she had dragged a chair across the room and climbed on it to reach it.

It was their experience of losing a parent and the anger, confusion and distress that followed that has driven Nelson’s Journey forward to the point where it has helped more than 1,500 children.

While in more than 50pc of cases it is a parent who has died, Nelson’s Journey - named for Norfolk’s own Admiral Nelson and the journey of bereavement - supports youngsters who have lost any loved one, from grandparents and cousins to siblings and friends.

At the heart of the charity’s work is its therapeutic residential weekends at Hilltop outdoor centre in Sheringham.

Mrs Plunkett said: “A common misconception is that we provide counselling. Children and young people find it difficult to express what they are feeling into words and so we provide therapeutic and creative ways for the children to do this. For example, we might ask them to draw a picture of where mummy is, or what happened to daddy.

“One young boy whose father died of a heart attack in bed drew a picture of his dad in bed and another man climbing out of the window with blood on the floor.

“He did not understand what had happened and thought someone had attacked his dad and ripped his heart out and thrown it on the floor.

“The boy was anxious the man might come back and do the same to him and that was causing him anxiety and sleep problems.”

She said families’ reluctance to talk about death to children could cause misunderstandings.

“One girl was told her grandma had been ‘lost’ so she was going around looking for her,” she said.

Mrs Plunkett said bereaved children typically suffered anxiety and might not sleep at night for fear their remaining parent would die. If their loved one had died in a traffic accident, they might be reluctant to go out in a car.

She said: “Bereaved children can be at a higher risk of becoming dependent on drugs or alcohol, dropping out of mainstream school and teenage pregnancy, so early intervention is so important.

“They bottle everything up. Sometimes they don’t want to talk about their father’s death because they see it makes their mother cry.”

Mrs Plunkett said as well as supporting children, Nelson’s Journey’s bereavement workers also helped the whole family.

“They can reassure parents they are doing things right and that children’s reactions are normal,” she said.

“One characteristic that can cause concern but is perfectly normal is what is called ‘puddle jumping’ where children can be upset one moment and then be running around playing the next.”

She said the residential weekends were designed to offer an intensive programme of bereavement and support including memory work opportunities, activities to explore feelings and building self esteem and confidence.

“It is good for them to meet other children going through similar experiences,” she said.

“It can be scary at the start of the weekend when their child bereavement worker might be the only person they know. However, by the end they are often exchanging contact details with their new friends.”

At the start, they will sit in a big circle and tell the group who they were and who they had come to remember. Then there would be a “light bulb” moment when they realised they were not alone.

She said: “At the end of the first day we have a candle-lighting ceremony where the children light a candle and say a few words about their lost loved one. Then we go around again and blow out the candles and say goodbye.

“For those who have not cried yet, it is a safe environment for them to do so.”

She said a doctor also attends every camp to clarify cause of death and provide medical knowledge. They come to answer the children’s questions, such as “will I have a heart attack?” or “can you catch cancer?”.

It costs the charity £350,000 a year to run its small team and fund the six annual residential weekends.

Mrs Plunkett said: “We don’t receive any government funding and are totally reliant on the public. “We apply to charitable trusts but 45pc of our income comes from the fund-raising of individuals and we are always pleased for people to undertake personal challenges, such as running events, sky dives or organise events for us.”

Tomorrow: meet the Betts family who have been helped on their painful journey by Nelson’s Journey.

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